How Strangely Men Act

Reflections on our mortality are common in Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts, Meditations. He takes a very stark approach to the reality that we are not going to live forever, and the fact that our time on this planet is very short compared to the life cycle and existence of nature and the Earth.  Beyond simply acknowledging our mortality Aurelius looks at what our temporary existence truly means, and how we should act during our lifetime given that we will one day be gone.

 

He writes, “How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time, and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if though shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” In this quote he focuses on the desire that humans have to make a lasting impact on this planet and to live on in the memory and reverence of those who will follow after them.  He criticizes this idea and says that it is foolish to be so focused on the future rather than the present. Living to impress those who will never know you, and being so focused on creating a reputation to impress future generations is a poor focus for our lives. Aurelius did not believe such a focus was worth our time, especially if it limited our ability to make true connections with those living with us now.

 

What Aurelius wrote about 2,000 years ago is still a struggle for many people today. Rather than worrying about how we can be great people now and make a real impact in the lives of those who are around us, we focus on what we can do to build a reputation to impress those we will never know in future generations.  We would all find it absurd to think that people who lived before us should have honored us, but we seem to desire that we are honored after our death by those who we will never meet. We will not be around to feel the warmth of their support or praise, and living solely to be impressive in posterity leaves out the present and diminishes your ability to truly enjoy living and change the world.

Marcus Aurelius on Brevity

In his common place book, published after his death with the title Meditations, Marcus Aurelius continually returned to the idea of our death and the short period of time that we spend on Earth.  He had a very realistic sense for how short our time here is, and how we should think about that time.  Our mortality can be a difficult subject to think about and focus on, but Aurelius was in many ways fascinated by the recognition of his mortality and what that meant for the life he lead.

 

Aurelius wrote, “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” In his quote he is showing that not only is our life short, but the lives of those who will remember us are also short. Not long after we have passed away, those who follow us will pass away. Living for legacy and trying to live to be remembered and venerated for eternity is a wasteful approach to life because you will never be able to control what is remembered and exactly how you are remembered.

 

Throughout meditations Aurelius writes about living in the present and being content with the life that you have. By focusing on our thoughts and changing the perspectives we foster, we can better understand our place in the world and our motivations.  Accepting that we will have an end, and that our memory will be forgotten is difficult, but it is an honest reality that we should embrace.  When we accept our mortality and the brevity of our lives, each moment can become more important and special, helping us better use our time to improve the direction and focus of our actions.